The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Romantic Profiling, or, Online Dating and Offline Love

I’m all for online dating. When it comes to loving and being loved, we need […]

David Zahl / 7.5.11

I’m all for online dating. When it comes to loving and being loved, we need all the help we can get, right? Emphasis on need. And surely anything that can be marshaled against the forces of loneliness is a good thing. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find, upon moving out of NYC, that there’s still considerable stigma surrounding the practice, that in certain quarters it’s considered to be the electronic equivalent of taking out a personal ad. Which is sort of like claiming that cell phones are a luxury for the rich and famous to have in their cars… This being our brave new world, whether we like it or not (and the movie poster to the right notwithstanding). Of course, some might even argue that social media was invented in the service of love – and not of the friendship variety – that the pool all of us Facebookers are swimming in is heart-shaped and has been from the beginning.

Be that as it may, The New Yorker published a lengthy, um, “profile” of the online dating world last week, looking not only at the major sites, but the people behind those sites (and their own dating histories). Author Nick Paumgarten points out that the sites in question – OK Cupid, eHarmony and – are not only in the business of setting people up, they’re in the business of selling, well, love. Each site also has their own philosophy of what works best (e.g. opposites attract, physical resemblance attracts, etc), and the attendant R&D department to process the unprecedented reams of raw data they receive every day, to see what it tells them about their product: compatibility, attraction, conflict resolution, you name it. In fact, they almost run their sites like laboratories, constantly testing out new theories, refining old ones, even observing couples in person. It’s fascinating if a little unsettling, and clearly a goldmine for social scientists.

That said, while it may be a new context, the human heart is still the human heart and sexual politics can only ebb and flow so much. In spite of all the technological hoohah, familiar patterns do prevail: empathy breeds intimacy, expectation alienates, safety fosters communication, silence inspires defensiveness, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

The process of selecting and securing a partner, whether for conceiving and rearing children, or for enhancing one’s socioeconomic standing, or for attempting motel-room acrobatics, or merely for finding companionship in a cold and lonely universe, is as consequential as it can be inefficient or irresolute. Lives hang in the balance, and yet we have typically relied for our choices on happenstance—offhand referrals, late nights at the office, or the dream of meeting cute.

Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way. They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand. They rely on algorithms, those often proprietary mathematical equations and processes which make it possible to perform computational feats beyond the reach of the naked brain. Some add an extra layer of projection and interpretation; they adhere to a certain theory of compatibility, rooted in psychology or brain chemistry or genetic coding, or they define themselves by other, more readily obvious indicators of similitude, such as race, religion, sexual predilection, sense of humor, or musical taste. There are those which basically allow you to browse through profiles as you would boxes of cereal on a shelf in the store. Others choose for you; they bring five boxes of cereal to your door, ask you to select one, and then return to the warehouse with the four others. Or else they leave you with all five…

The obvious advantage of online dating is that it provides a wider pool of possibility and choice. If your herd is larger, your top choice is likely to be better, in theory, anyway. This can cause problems. When there is something better out there, you can’t help trying to find it. You fall prey to the tyranny of choice—the idea that people, when faced with too many options, find it harder to make a selection. If you are trying to choose a boyfriend out of a herd of thousands, you may choose none of them. Or you see someone until someone better comes along. The term for this is “trading up.” It can lead you to think that your opportunities are virtually infinite, and therefore to question what you have. It can turn people into products…

Most of the Internet dating sites still rely, as TACT did, on the questionnaire. The raw material, in the matching process, is a mass of stated preference: your desire or intolerance for certain traits and characteristics. Many of the sites make do with that alone. The more sophisticated ones attempt to identify and exploit the dissonance between what you say you want and what you really appear to want, through the choices you make online.


“What you do is more important than what you say,” Greg Blatt, who is the C.E.O. of I.A.C., and a former C.E.O. of, told me… You may specify that you’d like your date to be blond or tall or Jewish or a non-smoking Democrat, but you may have a habit of reaching out to pot-smoking South Asian Republicans. This is called “revealed preference,” and it is the essential element in Match’s algorithmic process. Match knows what’s right for you—even if it doesn’t really know you. After taking stock of your stated and revealed preferences, the software finds people on the site who have similar dissonances between the two, and uses their experiences to approximate what yours should be. You may have sent introductory messages to only two people, and marked a few others with a wink—a nonverbal expression of interest—but Match will have hundreds of people in its database who have done a lot more on the site, and whose behavior yours seems to resemble…

A common observation, about both the Internet dating world and the world at large, is that there is an apparent surplus of available women, especially in their thirties and beyond, and a shortage of recommendable men. The explanation for this asymmetry, which isn’t exactly news, is that men can and usually do pursue younger women, and that often the men who are single are exactly the ones who prefer them. For women surveying a landscape of banished husbands or perpetual boys, the biological rationale offers little solace. Neither does the Internet.

The dating profile, like the Facebook or Myspace profile, is a vehicle for projecting a curated and stylized version of oneself into the world. In a way, the online persona, with its lists of favorite bands and books, its roster of essential values and tourist destinations, represents a cheaper and more direct way of signalling one’s worth and taste than the kinds of affect that people have relied on for centuries—headgear, jewelry, perfume, tattoos. Demonstrating the ability, and the inclination, to write well is a rough equivalent to showing up in a black Mercedes. And yet a sentiment I heard again and again, from women who instinctively prized nothing so much as a well-written profile, was that, as rare as it may be, “good writing is only a sign of good writing.” Graceful prose does not a gentleman make.

The fact that you can’t get away with lying in your profile for long doesn’t prevent a lot of people from doing it. They post old photographs of themselves, or photos of other people, or click on “athletic” rather than “could lose a few pounds,” or identify themselves as single when they are anything but. Sometimes the man says he’s straight but the profile reads gay. Sometimes he neglects to mention that he is a convicted felon. OK Cupid, in an analysis of its own data, has confirmed what I heard anecdotally: that men exaggerate their income (by twenty per cent) and their height (by two inches), perhaps intuiting that women pay closer attention to these data points than to any others. But women lie about these things, too. A date is an exercise in adjustment.

In 2005, in response to the success of eHarmony, began developing a new site—a longer-term-relationship operation with a scientific underpinning. The white coat whom recruited for this new counter-venture was a biological anthropologist named Helen Fisher, a research professor at Rutgers and a renowned scholar of human attraction and attachment. Fisher’s observations and f indings regarding the human personality, romantic or otherwise, are rooted in her study of the human species over the millennia and in the role that brain chemistry plays in temperament, especially with regard to love, attraction, choice, and compatibility. She has used brain scans to track the activity of chemicals in the brains of people in various states of romantic agitation. She has devised four per sonality types, or “dimensions” (explorer, negotiator, builder, director), that correspond to various neurochemicals (respectively, dopamine, estrogen/oxytocin, serotonin, testosterone). Although the proposition of four types is not new (Plato, Jung), her nomen clature and their biochemical foundation represent a frontier of relationship science, albeit one that is thinly populated and open to flanking attack. The new site was christened…






Fisher contends that dating online is a reversion to an ancient, even primal approach to pairing off. She conjures millions of years of human prehistory: small groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the savanna, and then congregating a few times a year at this or that watering hole. Amid the merriment and the information exchange, the adolescents develop eyes for one another, in view of their elders and peers. The groups likely know each other, from earlier gatherings or hunting parties. “In the ever present gossip circles,” Fisher once wrote, “a young girl could easily collect data on a potential suitor’s hunting skills, even on whether he was amusing, kind, smart.”

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that it became normal for young people to pair up with strangers, in real or relative anonymity. “Walking into a bar is totally artificial,” Fisher told me. “We’ve come to believe that this is the way to court. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. What’s natural is knowing a few fundamental things about someone before you meet.” Vetting has always occurred at many levels, ranging from the genealogical to the pheromonal. In her view, dating via the Internet enables, as she wrote, “the modern human brain to pursue more comfortably its ancestral mating dance.”

It’s senseless, at least in the absence of divine agency, to declare that any two people were made for each other, yet we say it all the time, to sustain our belief that it’s sensible for them to pair up. The conceit can turn the search for someone into a search for that someone, which is fated to end in futility or compromise, whether conducted on the Internet or in a ballroom. And yet people find each other, every which way, and often achieve something that they call happiness.